developing a research agenda

So you’re thinking about how to develop a research agenda after your doctorate. This is often difficult to do. You’ve been down and dirty with the same question (and with all of the material you generated) for quite some time. And now you not only have to work on publishing from doctoral work, but also develop new work.

It’s often easy to see a next step from the doctorate. However you probably need to do more than this. Why? Well… You might be applying for postdoctoral funding – this almost always involves developing a longer term agenda and imagining a larger contribution. Or you might be applying for a permanent position. In either case, you have to put yourself in the position of a future senior scholar you, a you who is looking back at the significant work that you’ve done on topic x or topic y to get where you are now. Not easy when you’ve only just started to feel like someone with authority and expertise.

So the trick involved in developing a research agenda is to see how the stuff of the doctorate and the next step are the beginnings of a bigger and long term set of projects – all of which add up to you doing something quite substantial, about something important. And something you care about.

Developing your research agenda always involves making choices. For a start there’s usually several options flowing from the doctorate and the next step. Deciding between them may not be easy. So you might want to hang on to a couple of possible pathways and agendas for a bit to see how jobs, funding and collaborations pan out.

There’s no need to panic though. Developing an agenda is usually not an overnight process. But you can get help. You can get a lot from some sustained conversations with other people.

Fortunately a lot of universities do have good mentoring schemes where you can have just such agenda developing conversations. But talking with someone else is not dependent on institutions. If your institution doesn’t have a mentoring process, or you are between institutions as much as in them, then you can still have “what is my agenda” conversations with your mates. Your agenda has to make sense to you, but it does also help if you can explain it. And talking really helps.

Of course whatever agenda you decide on isn’t fixed in stone. Plans change as the world changes and new opportunities or difficulties arise. And as you learn. What you think is your agenda at the end of the doctorate might change, and change a lot. But it is helpful to have something in your head, and preferably on paper, that you can use now to steer your decision making.

But I want to surface something research agenda related that gets discussed less frequently. It’s something that affects my research agenda that I don’t talk about much. I know other people also find it important. And it’s time to fess up.

I always have at least two research projects on the go. Both of them are about school education. But one of them is always about something that I am in a rage about. The other is always something that is a counter balance, something positive and pleasurable. 

I came to my yin yang agenda in part because I found just doing either/or unsatisfactory. If I only focused on the joyful, than I was ignoring all of the unjust and awful things that really needed attention. If I was just focused on the terrible and rage-inducing then I was ignoring all of the things that showed that there were people doing great things and that there are alternatives. I needed/wanted to work with, and show both.

But there was/is also a personal side to my yin yang research agenda. Just focusing on injustices leaves me with a mix of anger, sadness, frustration and powerlessness. I need the balance of more positive projects so that I don’t get emotionally overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues I research. Having a balance is my way of creating a sustainable research career – one which I know is purposeful, but one where I’m not left feeling like a wrung-out rag at the end of a visit or some data analysis.

Now I know that you won’t feel the same as me, and I’m not writing this because I think that you too have to have a yin yang agenda. My point is that it is important to not only think about the stuff you want to research but also you. Research agendas are also about you, the researcher. They are always personal, human. Research is not just about career. Research is not just about contribution. It is also about what is do-able and what is sustainable. What is doable and sustainable for you, given who you are and what you need to do for you.

So when you are considering how you will move on from the doctorate, do give some thought to what you need to not only start your research agenda, but also keep it going. What kind of agenda will allow you to feel emotionally/mentally in good space? What do you need from the work itself to sustain energy, interest and intellectual risk-taking? Is anything likely to be draining rather than sustaining? If so, what can you build in to guard against this? Does your agenda need to be tweaked so that it doesn’t exhaust you, bore you to tears or make you so sad and/or angry it spills out into other parts of your life?

But perhaps this is not yet clear to you. That’s fine. Or it may not even, or ever, be an issue for you. But do just bear this post in mind in case it is.

It’s great to develop a challenging and exciting research agenda. Just make sure that there is an escape from research topic induced blues if you need it.

Photo by Daniel Lerman on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in research, research agenda, research decisions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to developing a research agenda

  1. Shahan says:

    I finished my PhD a few months ago and am already beginning to shape my research agenda. But I’d not given thought to having two projects running side-by-side. Thank you for your contribution, Pat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I graduated in December, and so this posting is timeous. The comment: “so that I don’t personally get overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues I research” touched a cord. Researching implementation of skills development in South Africa, with the multiple challenges we face (despite enormous progress made) can be overwhelming. So, while not everyone may relate, for some of us Pat’s advice is gold.


  3. Interesting point the yin yang agenda 🤓 Could you give a guesstimate on how much of the agenda is planned and self-generated versus fate?


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